1981 Toxteth riots
The Toxteth riots of July 1981 were a civil disturbance in Toxteth, inner-city Liverpool, which arose in part from long-standing tensions between the local police and the black community. They followed the Brixton riots earlier that year.
The Merseyside police force had, at the time, a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under the "sus" laws, and the perceived heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Friday 3 July, watched by an angry crowd, led to a disturbance in which three policemen were injured. The existing tensions between police and people had already been noticed by local magistrate, Councillor and Chair of the Merseyside Police Committee, Margaret Simey, who was frequently critical of the hardline tactics used by the then Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford. She said of the rioters "they would be apathetic fools ... if they didn't protest", although she was unprepared for the personal criticism that followed.
One main cause of poverty in the area was containerisation at the nearby Liverpool Docks, ending thousands of waterfront-type jobs which had been associated with the city of Liverpool for generations. With the economy in recession, unemployment in Britain was at a 50-year high in 1981, and Toxteth had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Over the weekend that followed, disturbance erupted into full-scale rioting, with pitched battles between police and youths in which petrol bombs and paving stones were thrown. During the violence milk floats were set on fire and directed at police lines. Rioters were also observed using scaffolding poles to charge police lines. The Merseyside Police had issued its officers with long protective shields but these proved inadequate in protecting officers from missile attacks and in particular the effects of petrol bombs. The overwhelming majority of officers were not trained either in using the shields or in public order tactics. The sole offensive tactic available to officers,the baton charge, proved increasingly ineffective in driving back the attacking crowds of rioters.
At 02:15 hours on Monday 6 July Merseyside police officers fired between 25-30 CS gas grenades for the first time in the UK outside Northern Ireland. The gas succeeded in dispersing the crowds. In all, the rioting lasted nine days during which 468 police officers were injured, 500 people were arrested, and at least 70 buildings were damaged so severely by fire that they had to be demolished. Around 100 cars were destroyed, and there was extensive looting of shops. Later estimates suggested the numbers of injured police officers and destroyed buildings were at least double those of the official figures.
Such was the scale of the rioting in Toxteth that police reinforcements were drafted in from forces across England including Greater Manchester Police, Lancashire, Cumbria, Birmingham and even Devon to try to control the unrest.
A second wave of rioting began on 27 July 1981 and continued into the early hours of 28 July, with police once again being attacked with missiles and a number of cars being set alight. 26 officers were injured. However on this occasion the Merseyside Police responded by driving vans and land rovers at high speed into the crowds quickly dispersing them. This tactic had been developed as a riot control technique in Northern Ireland by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and had been employed with success in quelling the Moss Side riots by the Greater Manchester Police. A local man David Moore died after being struck by a police vehicle trying to clear crowds.
Because it was seen to involve mainly black youths (similar to riots around the same time in Brixton, Handsworth, and those in 1980 in Bristol), the Toxteth upheaval was generally reported as a "race riot",[who?] but there were also reports of frustrated white youths travelling in from other areas of Liverpool to fight alongside Toxteth residents against the police.
One facility looted in the riots was a sports club called the Racquet Club, which was opened in 1877 on Upper Parliament Street, when Toxteth was an upper-middle-class area. When the riot started, the clubhouse included 3 squash courts and 12 bedrooms. During the riot, the clubhouse and all of its facilities and records was burnt and destroyed, and it did not reopen until 20 May 1985, in another building.
The subsequent Scarman Report (although primarily directed at the Brixton Riot of 1981) recognised that the riots did represent the result of social problems, such as poverty and deprivation. The Government responded by sending Michael Heseltine, as "Minister for Merseyside" to set up the Merseyside Task Force and launch a series of initiatives, including the Liverpool international garden festival and the Mersey Basin Campaign.
10 people (including three police officers) were injured in a second riot in Toxteth on 1 October 1985, after gangs stormed the district's streets and stoned and burnt cars in response to the arrest of four local black men in connection with a stabbing. The Merseyside police Operational Support Division was deployed into the area to restore order and were later criticised by community leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Warlock for their "over zealous and provocative tactics" which included the drumming of batons on riot shields.
Toxteth Riots in popular culture
- The riots feature prominently in Liverpool native Kevin Sampson's novel Stars Are Stars. The book's protagonist helps the rioters/protesters by taking photographs of police brutality before and during the riots.
- Rapper Braintax mentions the Toxteth riots in his song "Opening Titles": "I've been rapping since the Toxteth riots / So you new jack American wannabes need to stay quiet".
- The riots took place whilst The Specials' song "Ghost Town" was topping the UK Singles Chart. The song had been written in response to the earlier - though less serious - riots in Coventry, and was released at a time when unrest had broken out in several parts of London and the rest of England.
- Two songs by local bands responded to the 'uprising' of 1981 shortly after the event: Public Disgrace's hardcore punk 45, "Toxteth", and Cook Da Books' 12" single "Piggy in the Middle Eight", with lyrics by John Smith and its haunting dub side, "Gone to Black", with reggae producer Dennis Bovell at the controls, including many theme tunes from TV cop series. Both records were issued on Liverpool's Probe Plus label.
- Local band The Rialto Burns named themselves after the Liverpool Echo headline which featured a burning Rialto Ballroom, set alight during the riots. The venue, which had played host to The Beatles, was eventually razed to the ground.
- In series 8, episode 7 of Shameless, Mimi Maguire (Tina Malone) mentions the Toxteth Riots several times.
- In season 6, episode three of "Crossing Jordan", [Dr. Mahesh "Bug" Vijay] mentioned that his father owned a shop on Selbourne Road during the riots, and that he and his father were stuck in the middle of the violence. When he and his father returned to the shop, it had been burned down.
- Frost, Diane and Richard Phillips, eds. Liverpool '81: Remembering the Riots (Liverpool University Press, 2011) 150 pp.
- Keating, Andrew. "Review of Frost, Diane; Phillips, Richard, eds., Liverpool '81: Remembering the Riots" H-Memory, H-Net Reviews. April, 2012. online
- Brixton riot (1981) - London
- Chapeltown riot (1981) - Leeds
- 1981 Handsworth riots - Birmingham
- Moss Side riot - Manchester
- List of riots
- Urban riots
- "Leroy Cooper, Artist and Photographer". Where I Live - Liverpool. BBC. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
- Waddington, Marc. "Leroy Cooper: The Toxteth Riots were a wake-up call and did some good". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
- Clarke, Raymond (29 July 2004). "Guardian Obituary". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2009-01-19.
- Toxteth riots remembered BBC
- "Toxteth riots remembered". BBC News. 4 July 2001.
- Marie, Charles; Boyle Bill (april 2011). "Tightening the Shackles: The Continued Invisibility of Liverpool’s British African Caribbean Teachers.". Journal Of Black Studies 42 (3): 427–435.
- "1985: Riots erupt in Toxteth and Peckham". BBC News. 1 October 1985.